Matt Mooney’s Review of Love on the Isle of Dogs by Jude Cowan Montague

Jude Cowan Montague is an artist, poet, musician. Born in Manchester, she has lived mostly in London. At the age of 21 she went to Sumatra and learned to sing saluang songs and has been an alternative musician all her adult life. She worked as an archivist for Reuters Television Archive for ten years and has written poetry and made art about international news stories. She is a broadcaster and runs the weekly show The News Agents for Resonance FM. She plays Hammond Organ and has a husky.

Love on the isle of Dogs is a graphic memoir of her life in the 1990’s. It is a story about everyday challenge of becoming a young parent, getting married and living independently in a London that seems to have already vanished in the 2020’s. It is a story of severe mental health, awareness of psychosis, living with these problems and surviving in her own way. Most of all, this is a personal love story. In which we know, anything can happen.


Matt Mooney’s Review of Love on the Isle of Dogs by Jude Cowan Montague

When you have drawn breath in awe at the ending of Love on the Isle of Dogs, a memoir of life in the nineteen nineties in word and picture, you know you held in your hands the life of a young woman dripping with all the blood sweat and tears that goes with being human, with being a woman whose tale it is. Hamlet’s ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ goes on and on and I can guarantee you that the proof of his words is brought home to us as the life experiences of Jude Cowan-Montague are revealed to us in this short gallop through a decade in time. Once we are in we are in, in this book and there is no backing out. We feel committed to continue with her on her journey to love and peace through the pages.

We are invited to share all the joys of her developing love life, to all the fun as she describes her wedding and the ‘can’t wait for it to happen!’ birth of her daughter. Along the way we are shocked by her troubles in the domestic front, by the onset of her husband’s’ mental illness and its worsening as time went by turning their new home into a house of horrors during sleepless nights. She would creep like a mouse around the house in the daytime for fear of sparking off his anger.

All of this was happening until he agreed to be hospitalised and he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.  Her memoir undoubtedly raises questions on how we view issues of mental health and its treatment.

We are treated to her artistically drawn black and white skip along pictures in part one, a walk- around-gallery depicting the various stages of her life expressed in the same sequence as her written story in part two. The drawings are in the realm of art therapy for both writer and reader.

It’s both a great introduction and a useful guide to keep us on track with all that was happening.   

‘I jumped from tussock to tussock on the marches and never twisted my ankle’.

This agility appears to me to be paralleled in the style of her narration. She moves quickly from one account to another with the same skill, ease, and quickness shown in her sure-footedness across the moors of her native Manchester. Though this sure-footedness sometimes faltered as she was faced with a brick wall of adversity at later times on various occasions.

She paints a very poignant picture of herself at the end of the book in the Epilogue, a statuesque image of her alone with her baby in the snow.  I am reminded of what she said earlier in dire straits, ‘The first rule is to protect yourself and your children’. It is the picture of the survivor of a troubled marriage now facing life alone with her daughter:

‘Above me the flakes of winter were falling. They landed on my hair, they landed on my shoulders, they landed on my sleeves’.  

Every so often in the reading of this highly engaging book, we encounter a coq’à l’ane, a sudden change of subject. The reader is never allowed to fall asleep on the job.

She weaves in and out of the plot but never ever loses it. There are so many jolts, so many blind bends in her narrative and in the style of her dialogue pieces, in capital letters, in short blasts of stanza-like single phrases, standing out on the page like a quotation from a poem to signify how events and facts impacted on the writer and her main character, her husband. His introduction on stage so to speak comes after her summation of what had gone on in the lead up to this first meeting with him. It is as terse and as surprising to us as it was to her.

‘I was finally growing up, and realising that dreams didn’t come true. You made the best of things.

I’d adjusted. We’d all adjusted. We lived with the truth and this was never going to work out. They were good. Or, they weren’t bad.

                 Now it seemed, he hadn’t lived with that. At all.

                 ‘I’m looking for you’.

                 Yup, that’s what he said’.

 You are hit with something new when you least expect it. It’s a novel and an effective way of combining the two genres of prose and poetry to impact on the reader in the telling of her story.  It’s as if she incorporated warning signs for us along the way which she herself ignored and paid for dearly in her own love life later.

There are other ploys as well, more tools in her toolbox of literary tricks, for holding and intriguing us. In a secret diary-like style, reminiscent of teenage years, she gives only the first letter of many of her characters, even the main one, her husband. She may have personal and privacy reasons for this as well but one way or the other it works for me. I am familiar with it for I have gone down that road myself in my diaries.

 Little things like this brings our experience of the book closer to the recollection of our own life experiences. There are times too when we are metaphorically down in the trenches with her in what she is going through because we were there ourselves in episodes of our lives, in our own relationships we may have put down as to be best forgotten.

To use an expression ‘she has an eye for detail’ would describe very well what I have found in Love on the Isle of Dogs. To say that she can use this aptitude to immerse us more and more in her life is an understatement. It plays a central role in the book. We find too that in her gift for detail we are invited in an intimate way to share in what struck her most in her encounters as she moves through the story. Here we feel we are on the wings of the arts centre watching the entry of the love-to-be in her life. She describes herself sitting:

 ‘in a pool of bright light’, radio on, ‘music was life’, while dramatically ‘He was a shadow’.

All this after a false start earlier on when he said he wasn’t ready for a relationship and having had a serious accident and suffered from amnesia as a result to when she walks the zebra crossing up to the door of the house he built himself:

‘Then the wooden Caroline door. He got his keys out and turned them in the secure Chubb (5-lever) and Yale, and we were in’.

She uses this eye for detail to even better effect and with a poetic pen filled with the ink of imagery in:

‘The sink looked over at the zebra crossing that we had just crossed. The round orange-yellow globes flashed, two suns. Shining, shining’.

The reader feels relief for her when she takes a moment out for herself while on holiday abroad with her future partner and his friend from her ongoing saga of many woes and she writes of the colour and the joy of life with buckets of imagery and pinpoint accuracy of expression and then of simple inconsequential things like eating a sandwich.

‘I lay on my back in the inland water and saw the clouds settled and yawning in the cyan sea above. The sun was hot on my skin which felt fresh with the day.

 The hot fields of France baked beneath the summer, but I was cool and cucumber-moist.

 I towelled off and ate the baguette and cheese. So many bread flakes, brush them off into the grass’.

As an artist she has expressed a high disdain for minimalism in any form. She describes it as:

‘an art movement that passed me by like the countryside on a railway train; forever separated by the carriage window’

 On a few occasions in Love on the Isle of Dogs she suffered for its presence. One was in the new house the man who was to be her future husband had built himself:

‘Everything was large and plain and white. White painted fresh corridors. I had a hospital feeling. It was fresh and clean like a ward’.

There was obviously a yawning gap between their tastes in decor seeing that she belonged to the rainbow colours world of the arts.

Seldom enough I close a book for the present, impatient to return to it, but in this case I hasten to open it again to be in the company of the author for she draws you into her confidence and almost makes you an accessory to every upturn and downturn. Such is her grip on the power of words.

Maybe it’s because at the same time as she self-examines her personality and its facts and foibles she puts you the reader into the same mode and her revelations of herself become your revelations to yourself in turn. That’s what makes you want to continue with her:

‘I’m not one to talk about my own life too much. I like to listen and join in when I have something to say. I might not start a story at the beginning and keep telling it – I like to hear what’s going on and then embellish it – take it somewhere else, chip in, keep improvising’.

 Sounds like she is standing back from herself and regarding herself as one regards a character in a play.

It’s superb to have her really be herself as she holidays in France, before the hard times of her husband’s mental illness put a cross on her back when she was in the process of nurturing her new baby. This girl who had worked in the:

 ‘crazy little arts centre, down a little cul-de-sac in the housing blocks of Newham’

This was before the ultra-modern monstrosity of Canary Wharf came to impose itself on the Isle of Dogs in East London. She makes no bones about telling us that she used to buy her clothes in the charity shops in the markets of Old London’s Brick Lane locally. In the following extract from the book she is in Montpellier and she refers to its cafés and to people she had met who had visited the wetlands of the Camargue. This sets her dreaming.

‘We sat outside a small café as the sun got low in the sky. Long days in Montpellier. Anything can happen. A jazz combo started to play’.

‘ we met up with family friends from the Camarague. I saw white horses in my dreams, capering and displaying themselves over the marches, nuzzling tussocks and rearing like a childhood fantasy.

We were walking in the evening through the spooky café landscape of Van Gogh’s late paintings, the starry, starry night making arabesques, musical twists. Pop blasting from radios and chinks of knives and forks on plates.

            ‘Stars and stars and stars and stars.

            Wild horses must be free’.

It’s an especially beautiful episode where she gives vent to the poetry in her heart yet to be written but at least we get a foretaste here of what only can be described as the purest of it.

Her appraisal of the mental predicament of her Irish born husband is as compassionate as she was passionate about him and their new baby when times were better. In a psychoanalytic statement on what might be the cause of his ill health she says that in relation to his siblings they were:

‘too big, too clever for him’ and that ‘he was a boy at the bottom of the sibling hierarchy’.

I cannot argue with that. That was my own position. One has to seriously consider these facts too:

 ‘he was brought up in Ireland during the troubles. Everyone grew up with stories of houses being bugged. Friends had their doors kicked in during the middle of the night’.

 How awful and how familiar even to those who lived through it in the relative safety of the South.

His father had been a lawyer and screaming tearful mothers would turn up at his house in the middle of the night to cry, ‘They’ve taken him away’.

 As a child he would creep downstairs, sit on the steps and listen. ‘The bombs exploding all round his adolescence’ in Omagh. There are catalytic stages in the story and heart rending happenings to both herself and her mentally hospitalised husband. She puts her marriage into perspective when she says I had bitten off more than I could chew’.

‘My life had been leading towards the light, each day getting brighter, more vivid. Then I met S. and the world blazed so brightly I could hardly see it. Then it started to fade’. Even the dog she craved to have had to be be given away by her father to avoid him being taken by the dog warden issuing final warnings regarding his escapes out on to the streets. Her accounts of visits to her husband in the Rachel Ward in the mental unit of the hospital gives us a clear unbiased insight into mental illness and the procedures undertaken to help the patients recover. When he had been released to go home she paints a sad picture of his lonely state, still sticking with the round table. 

There are instances in the book of how cruel life can be in being asked by her husband in his advanced state of paranoia, ‘Who are you’?

In the middle of the trauma of his mental illness, she was beginning to question her own identity as well. She poses that same question again when she senses she has lost him entirely and they are on two different wavelengths. She returns in the story on a few occasions to a round table where she used to sit to empathise with him and his inability to relate or communicate with a faraway look in his eye.

‘Each day he spent more time looking at the round table. It shone like a huge indoor moon, back in his face’.

 His aggressive outbursts towards her, his nearest and dearest, during which she felt extremely threatened was par for the course in the case of people suffering from that mental illness.  Even the birth of their daughter and her presence didn’t properly get through to him but he did gather a bouquet of wild flowers earlier for his wife on being told she was pregnant. When she could take no more and for her own and her baby’s safety she comes out of her own state of denial and leaves him to stay with friends.

I come back again to that poignant scene in the end with her standing outside in the snow. It is well to mention that she was wearing her favourite coat, an expensive one which S. had encouraged her to buy. She said it was a symbol of how she had outreached herself in her marriage. She was holding her little daughter, about to go into a secured apartment where she might find peace and protection from it all.

Many things she said come to mind from the vibes we get from a narrative of the ills that can befall us if we do not look out for ourselves when we should, truisms of a kind. The first one, ‘a mother and a baby are the same person’, ‘The people that were about to let me down. The dog was innocent’. ‘It was me, the rain, the dog and the baby on The Isle of Dogs’. Talking of the birth of the baby and its emotional effect on her, ‘It was as though I was giving birth to myself’. Another such one is, ”Love isn’t a magical cure for everything’. Then there is a very Shakespearian one ‘What a mansion the mind is’, in relation to what she learned from her husband’s consultants about how the mind works.

Her finding out that she was pregnant caused a turmoil of thoughts in her head. It’s difficult to highlight any particular passage of Love on the Isle of Dogs as being the most impressive in its power of description but I would rank this one highly in that sphere. The emotion in it is barely contained.

‘I walked around in circles, thinking, letting my thoughts roar like a train. I couldn’t hear anything for those inner sounds. This was it. This would calm him down. Now he could feel secure and he need not worry anymore. Now we were together’.

What turned out to be a mistake on her part as a basis for marriage, this great concern and pity for him on observing his lost look following his accident.  ‘He just needs to feel more secure’ was what she thought. She felt she could do that for him. Their marriage didn’t do it for him and to a certain extent neither did the birth of their daughter. He was too ill to benefit fully from either. Yet, there is a whiff of unwarranted guilt in her statement at one point during the time of his recovery from his accident earlier in their relationship. Maybe she felt the fact of her own background of:

‘Swimming in an indeterminate arty, nebulous culture’,

did not provide the skill set for to her to cope as she would have wished with what faced her in her love relationship.

 She is trying to interpret the lost look he had ‘that people have when life isn’t quite working out how they thought’.  She says:

‘The coarser among us try to sum it up in the horrible phrase, ‘My wife doesn’t understand me’. She says that ‘it haunts this tale, now and then’.

 The most important phrase in the book though as a guideline to avoid trouble is her admonition of, ‘Be careful of who you rotate around’, a lesson she had learned after the event. There is an old Irish saying, ‘Tar éis a tuigtear gach beart’, ‘all is clear afterwards’.

To the tune of ‘Take my breath away’ in her head, in the process of a visitation to the Rachel Ward she got to know so well, she observes in amazement and with good humour how the patients went from absolute calm to an almost state of frenzy, bringing those who could to their feet, at an ad for Peugeot on the television where the car concerned drove through a burning field.

Finally, in her piece about happy days enjoying the Irish way of life, including having pints in the local pub in Omagh with S. her husband, she writes with pride about the reactions of her daughter:

‘The baby has blonde hair and blue like both of us. She’s pink and white and drinking the whole of Ireland up with her eyes’.

Published by Friends of Alice Publishing in 2020 and available from Waterstones.


*Matt MooneyBorn, a farmer’s son, in Kilchreest, Co. Galway in 1943. A graduate of UCG and UCC he has worked as a Vocational Teacher in Listowel. His previous collections of poems were: Droving (2003), Falling Apples (2010), Earth to Earth (2015) and The Singing Woods (2017). Winner of The Pádraig Liath Ó Conchubhair Award 2019. (Filíocht/Poetry). He is a reviewer, copy editor and proof reader with The Galway Review Literary Magazine. His poems and writings have been published in: The Blue Nib; The Amaravati International Poetic Prism Anthology; The Galway Review (online), The Galway Review Anthology;  Feasta; West 47; The Applicant; Poetry Breakfast; Poems on the Edge;  The Connaught Tribune,The Kerryman and Kerrys Eye; The Galway Advertiser (Peann agus Pár); Pendemic and Live Encounters. He has been a feature reader in The White House, Ó Bhéal, On the Nail, West Cork Literary Festival, Baffle, Féile Raifteirí, Éigse Dara Beag , The Forge in Gort and has featured online in Cultivating Voices (USA) and Not the time to be Silent. One of his poems appears on the syllabus of a number of UK Primary Schools. His poems have been read on: RTE Radio, Wired FM, Radio Kerry.

  

 

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